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Tories run for cover after Quebec arena snub

Quebec Conservatives don Nordiques jerseys in September, 2010.

Yan Doublet/The Canadian Press/Yan Doublet/The Canadian Press

An impressive 15,000 people put on a show of force in support of an NHL franchise in Quebec City on Tuesday night by attending a big-screen broadcast of a Montreal Canadiens game at the old Colisée arena.

Among the crowd were Bloc Québécois and Liberal candidates, who jumped on the opportunity to muster voter support for their campaigns.

Conservative candidates, however, were nowhere to be seen.

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Josée Verner, the Tory minister responsible for the Quebec City region, said she couldn't attend because of a "prior engagement."

That's a far cry from the fall, when Ms. Verner was among a group of Quebec MPs who donned jerseys from the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques at a rally - a symbolic event suggesting federal funding for a new sports arena was just around the corner.

But two weeks ago, Stephen Harper announced that there would be no federal funds for the Quebec City project or for any other professional sports facilities in the country.

Conservative candidates in Quebec City have been running for cover ever since, fearing a backlash among voters.

The issue has become one of the main themes of the campaign in the region, with the Bloc Québécois hoping for a repeat of 2004 - when the party won all of the ridings in the city largely because of voter anger over the sponsorship scandal that helped put an end to the Liberal Party's rule.

The Bloc's confidence was evident in Gilles Duceppe's absence: The party leader won't make his first campaign appearance in Quebec City until Friday, almost a full week after the election was called. Unlike in 2008, when Quebec City was the battleground of a Tory-Bloc confrontation that ended in a stalemate, public-opinion polls indicate that the winds are shifting in Mr. Duceppe's favour.

Mr. Duceppe aggressively attacked Mr. Harper throughout the week, accusing him of lying and misleading Quebeckers. The refusal to fund the arena will fuel similar attacks on the local front.

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But the Bloc knows that the Conservatives are not going to go down without a fight. Mr. Harper needs to hold on to the 11 seats his party has in Quebec - most of them located in the wider Quebec City region - in his bid to win a majority government.

And one way the Conservatives will try to appease angry voters in the region will be to breathe new life in the Davie shipyard in nearby Lévis. Ottawa is seeking bids for $33-billion in contracts for the construction of navy ships, an icebreaker and coast guard vessels to be awarded later this year.

In order for the Davie shipyard to bid on the contracts, it must emerge from bankruptcy protection by mid-May with the assurance that it is solvent. A court decision regarding the company's financial obligations and bankruptcy protection is expected on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government this week promised to help the company. "Davie should have its fair share of the federal bid," said Quebec's Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, Pierre Moreau. "We are working with Davie to make sure that they are part of the bid."

Mr. Moreau said his government was preparing to make an announcement soon. And be sure that Mr. Harper's Conservatives won't have any "prior engagement" when he does. With more than 1,500 direct jobs on the line and thousands more from the ripple effect, the shipbuilding contract represents a major economic boost - and the Conservatives MPs want to reap the full political benefits.

The public tenders close in July, so Mr. Harper can't make a firm commitment that Davie shipyards will get a share of the contract. But he may be tempted to signal a preference.

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And if he does, the Bloc will remind voters of what happened with the sports arena when the Conservatives suggested one thing only to do the opposite.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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